As much as we need to assume an attitude of hawk-eyed vigilance as we ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, it is nevertheless necessary that we find something to celebrate and be grateful for. Because there are plenty to salute. Take, for example, the promptness with which companies, organizations, and institutions are leveraging their resources to contribute to the search for a cure and vaccine against COVID-19, the containment and preventive measures, and testing and tracing.
As is expected, the big names in science and technology and other fields, who are in the best position to make grand, live-saving gestures, are doing so, leveraging cutting-edge technology, talent, and ample funds at their disposal. And we should be all the better for it.
Testing and tracing
The importance of reliable and accessible testing to screen for COVID-19 has been underscored as the pandemic spreads across the globe. South Korea is proof: When the outbreak first hit, the country made sure that tests for the disease were made promptly and readily available. The result is a drastically lower death rate than in counties that have responded less promptly. South Korea records only 174 Covid-19 fatalities out of over 10,000 recorded cases.
Google and Apple
Google and Apple have teamed up on a testing- and prevention-related endeavor to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, while ensuring strong protections around user privacy. Public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain the spread of COVID-19, which can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals. With the groundwork having been laid by a number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world who have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology, Apple and Google will help the cause gain momentum by launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to help make contact tracing possible. With the urgent need driving the joint effort, the two technology giants plan to implement their solution in two steps:
- Both companies will release APIs in May that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.
- Apple and Google implement a more robust solution in the coming months by enabling a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities, without compromising privacy, transparency, and consent.
Both companies are seeking to build this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders and will publish pertinent information for analysis.
German engineering and technology company Bosch has also developed, within just six weeks, a rapid test that it claims can detect a SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infection in patients within two and a half hours—a time that the company has recently announce it aims to cut to just 45 minutes. Bosch’s Vivalytic point-of-care system can help medical facilities make fast diagnoses and play a part in containing the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid test also offers the following advantages:
- It can be performed directly at the point of care, without the need to transport samples, thus saving valuable time.
- It allows patients a quicker way to gain certainty about their state of health.
- It speeds up the process of identifying and isolating infected individuals. In comparison, current tests usually require patients to wait for one to two days for a result.
Bosch is also making the design of a fully automated face mask manufacturing line available free of charge.
the architects at the New York firm SITU, whose works can be seen in everything from urban solar panels to uncovering human rights violations through 3D models, are developing outdoor screening centers that let people get tested for COVID-19 without having to come into direct contact with anyone else, lessening the risk for front liners who would otherwise have to get close to people every day. The screening centers are based on models used in South Korea and resemble phone booths, where people can get contact-free professional medical counsel, along with a COVID-19 swab test. The units are housed under medical tents, usually just outside of emergency rooms, and are quick to manufacture and deploy to hospitals. The design is in the prototype phase, with SITU conducting user testing to get the medical staff’s feedback, before the screening booths can be used at New York City’s medical centers.
Only a handful of the COVID-19 vaccines in development have advanced to human trials—which is an indicator of safety and efficacy, as well as and the stage when most vaccines fail.
In the UK, as the numbers rise, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has joined forces with the University of Oxford to help develop, produce, and distribute a potential COVID-19 vaccine—a collaboration viewed as a vital to making the Oxford vaccine available as soon as the clinical trials prove a success.
Back in late April, a team of British scientists dosed the first volunteers, and the large-scale production capacity was being put in place earlier this month to make millions of doses ahead of the trial results.
The firm is not as major a player in vaccine development as GSK (GSK.L) and Sanofi (SASY.PA), who are also working on their own vaccine, but with its deep pockets and a $6-billion-strong R&D budget, its partnership with Oxford is looking to produce 100 million doses by the end of the year, and prioritize supply in the UK.
AstraZeneca hasn’t shared information yet of its plans to start producing the vaccine, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, which is being developed by the Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group.
But the company is also testing two of its approved treatments as a therapy to help in the outbreak.
British American Tobacco PLC and Marlboro
Then there the new, and rather unlikely, participant in the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19: the British American Tobacco PLC, owner of Lucky Strike, is developing a potential vaccine grown in tobacco plants, and so is Marlboro maker Philip Morris International Inc., through Medicago Inc., a biotech firm that it partly owns.
The technology company is giving researchers free access to its genome-sequencing software to help in the fight against COVID-19. And more recently, one of the company’s chief scientists, Bill Dally, has developed a low-cost, quick-to-assemble, open-source pulmonary ventilator—one that could be used to treat coronavirus-infected patients admitted to intensive care units (ICUs), as well as patients with severe respiratory problems.
Priced at $400, Op-Vent is a timely answer to the current desperate need for life-saving equipment. Even better, Op-Vent’s parts are already available, so hospitals need not have to wait for large component networks.
Xerox and Vortran
The print corporation has partnered with Vortran Medical Technology to speed up and scale production of Vortran’s GO2Vent ventilator and their Airway Pressure Monitor (APM-Plus), which are badly needed in hospitals and emergency response units. The GO2Vent can be used by medical professionals to support patients who do not need an ICU-level breathing device which can therefore be freed up for another patient in need of intensive care.
Xerox and Vortran hope to promptly address the lack of critical ventilation equipment together and scale up production from about 40,000 ventilators in April to between 150,000 and 200,000 ventilators a month by June 2020. With a stable supply of essential parts in the coming months, they could produce as many as 1 million ventilators in their facilities outside of Rochester, New York, and Sacramento, California.
Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors, and Dyson
These are some of the other big names that have redirected their resources to manufacturing ventilators in the race to address this critical need. Volkswagen has shifted production from their SEAT Leon line to automated ventilators with adapted windscreen wiper motors. And Ford and General Motors are doing the same under the US Defense Production Act. Even the British technology company Dyson has developed and is now producing a ventilator to help treat COVID-19 patients.
Face masks/shields and sanitizers
Companies as diverse as pharmas, technology companies, and architectural firms, as well as educational institutions, just to single out some examples, are rolling out face masks and face shields intended primarily for health care front liners.
Big brands and big pharmas
Prior to launching into their collaboration with the University of Cambridge, AstraZeneca donated 9 million face masks to the COVID Action Platform to help healthcare workers stay safe.
Big brands like Lacoste, Nike, and Apple are helping to make sure face masks and face shields are available to health workers and everyone else. Nearly a hundred employee volunteers from Lacoste’s French factories have been working since mid-March to make 145,000 washable and reusable masks until the end of April. The masks will be divided among local shopkeepers, to enable them to protect themselves in their daily lives, and the French government in the fight against COVID-19. The company’s Argentina arm in San Juan is also responsible for gowns and masks through the efforts of dozens of volunteers. “Every gesture counts to defeat this pandemic, and a big thank you to our heroes,” the company said in a statement.
The American multinational chemical corporation Dow has created a simplified face-shield design that allows them to increase production for healthcare workers, and are vowing to donate 100,000 shields to Michigan-area hospitals. The company has also adjusted operations to produce more than 200 metric tons of hand sanitizer at sites across North America, Europe and Latin America, to be donated to local health systems and government agencies.
Procter & Gamble will be able to produce more than 45,000 liters of sanitizer per week globally to share with hospitals, health care facilities, and relief organizations. P&G is also working to produce critically needed non-medical face masks in every region of the world, expecting to produce millions of masks per month. To help hospitals and COVID-19 testing centers, the company is producing face shields in Boston and Cincinnati by leveraging its R&D, engineering, and manufacturing capability.
Despite most practices grappling with threats to ongoing and pipeline projects, many are contributing to the effort to fight COVID-19 with 3D printed or laser-cut face shields, hospital conversions, material donations, and deployable intensive care units.
Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Handel Architects, edg, and Grimshaw are 3D-printing face shields, working with open source files, like that provided by 3DVerkstan, and making adjustments to allow for mass production. New York firm edg is currently averaging about 100 masks a day, having increased production by 20 percent from the original estimates by shortening the frame’s arms to fit more snuggly around the face.
In the UK, one of the leading practices, Foster + Partners, have opted to laser-cut their face shields, specifically designing them shields for faster production, as well as disassembly, sanitation, and reuse. The face shield components can be cut within 30 seconds and assembled in under a minute. One cutting machine allows for the assembly 1,000 face shields in a single day. The laser-cut face shields have now been distributed to health workers in London to test, and the studio has made the design and material specifications available so anyone with laser cutters can begin working. F + P are also exploring how to get the design approved for mass production.
Educational institutions and other organizations have recognized the massive need for face shields, not only for health workers but for everyone, and have responded accordingly. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland have turned to the Japanese art of paper folding to create the HappyShield, which is made by folding a sheet of clear plastic. The design is courtesy of University of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation and the University of Queensland’s Folded Structures Lab.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the other hand, researchers have begun mass-producing disposable face shields for medical workers. Theirs are made from a single piece of plastic, with each shield coming in a flat design that can be easily folded into a three-dimensional structure when needed for use, plus an additional protective feature in the form of flaps that fold under the neck and over the forehead.
Once again, the world is seeing an encouraging display of varying degrees of generosity, innovation, and goodwill in the face of a global crisis. All in all, there is much to celebrate.